While some elements lack steam, Rough Magic's musical has audiences on board for its retelling of a momentous, reproductive rights-fuelled journey
In 1971, contraception was still banned in the Republic Of Ireland. One Saturday that May, 47 young activists boarded the ‘Contraceptive Train’ to Belfast to purchase forbidden ‘fings’. They planned to confront Irish customs officials with their contraband upon their return to Connolly Station.
The Train is the musical retelling of this story, produced by Rough Magic and performed in the MAC after a recent run in the Abbey Theatre.
The story begins in 1916, for that is the terminus from which all Irish theatrical journeys seem to begin. The battle between religion and the common (wo)man is quickly set up with two priests singing about Eve being a trollop who caused the fall of man, and their dubious understanding of the special place that Ireland has in God’s heart as 'the last bastion of decency in the world'.
Five young women represent different positions within the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement which concocted the railway journey stunt to highlight the issue of 'God’s intrusion and the government’s collusion' to the international press.
Alongside their main line of tuneful plot runs a parallel allegorical track featuring universal figures Adam and Aoife. Played for laughs as well as highlighting stereotypically divergent views on fertility rights, Clare Barrett and Louis Lovett demonstrate the gradual embrace of modernity within Irish families.
Arthur Riordan’s rhyme-tastic lyrics and dialogue are accompanied by a surprisingly discordant score from Bill Whelan. Much of the music is soulful with a few more uptempo numbers cutting through at key moments in the plot and while final number 'We Won’t Bow Down' provides a catchy tune to hum while you leave the theatre, it’s still no earworm.
Lynne Parker’s direction creates some beautiful tableaux – the priest hopping in bed with Aoife a definite favourite – but she often leaves the five travelling women standing in the centre of the stage looking like a girl band about to reluctantly audition for the X Factor.
And though the costumes are colourful, the choreography is muted with gentle swaying redolent of a seventies youth club. It’s a far cry from the vivacious dance routines in Glasgow Girls, the other gender politics musical to recently grace the stage of the MAC.
Set designer Ciaran Bagnall has gathered up his giant Meccano set along with some Hornby train track to construct the black girdered walkways that accommodate the live band and allow the male characters representing the Church and the State to look down their noses from a great height.
The show doesn't demand the audience dig deep for hidden meanings in the music, as train metaphors abound. Meanwhile different-sized step ladders on wheels convey characters across the stage, their safety brakes engaged with a railway points lever.
Some northern details in the piece play well with the Belfast audience, particularly the comparison of a conservative voiced Orangeman with a Catholic priest, which is as apt in 2017 as it was in 1971.
Backed by a the four piece band – piano, synth, clarinet/saxophone and drums/percussion – the quality of Lisa Lambe’s voice stands out above the many other strong singers in the ensemble cast.
As a musical The Train doesn’t take itself too seriously. Theatrical conceits and plot devices are openly acknowledged – though the ‘epic present tense’ explanation is laboured – and the aisles soon become an extension of the stage.
Clare Barrett’s plays Aoife with warmth and wit, and her self-aware development from a suppressed wife to an independent thinking woman is a highlight of the show.
The complexity of the emerging lobby for contraception to be legalised is explored along with related societal hang-ups about sexuality and sex outside marriage. Similarly, Senator Mary Robinson’s less reactionary and slow burning legislative campaign to overturn the ban doesn't pass without acknowledgement.
All of this is wrapped up in the patriarchal culture of the day that made women second class citizens and invited the church into their bedrooms to meddle with their wombs.
By the time The Train reaches the end of its return journey it has picked up all kinds of baggage in its quest to be a vehicle for Irish inequalities, past and present. There are nods to the various continuing calls to resist, occupy, reform, and repeal.
The gender imbalance that remains in 21st century Irish creative industries is alluded to with a line that reminds us that the character of Aoife is 'a dizzy woman written by a man'.
Riordan and Whelan’s musical expands the events surrounding a return train journey into something that is both educational and entertaining. The show connects with audiences. While the music doesn’t invite too much toe-tapping, the performances are solid and there’s a feel good factor in judging the sins of the past and chastising the Church and the State.
People lean forward in their seats and right from the start there are gasps and giggles at the incredulous levels of 1970s command and control. Hoots of unexpectedly loud laughter go up from the stalls, as well as a single nicely-acknowledged heckle.
The Train has now departed Belfast. For news on future stops visit www.roughmagic.ie. Look back on past events at the MAC, which this week celebrates five years since opening, by clicking here. You can also get involved and share your memories online using the hashtag #myMAC.